One-day test: Subaru Forester 2.5XS Premium Lineartronic CVT
Years ago, cars came in any colour as long it was black. And you can be sure that along with that limited choice of exterior styling, you also didn’t get much say as to what was happening under the bonnet.
Fast-forward a few decades, and while you can now actually get a nice vibrant red or blue paint job, you were still limited to a handful of engines and either a manual or automatic gearbox.
Today, we have more gearbox options than engine tunings in some cases. There is of course still the manual, but that is becoming a rare sight on some of the newer cars, to the point where Porsche will not be offering the latest 911 GT3 with the choice of a third pedal.
But it is the automatic range of gearboxes that have exploded. There is the traditional automatic ‘box, which really makes you feel like you are driving a car from the past with its large amount of torque vectoring and slow gear changes.
Then, from gearbox manufacturers ZF, there are a series of quick responding units that can be classified as ‘traditional’ for the sake of labels, but that are far nicer to drive. Jaguar, for example, has successfully managed to integrate this gearbox into some of their most serious sports cars, without side lining the driver’s inputs too much.
Slightly more complex is the robotised manual gearbox, which is essential a normal clutch operated manual gearbox, but instead of attaching the clutch to a pedal and giving control of it to the driver, the vehicle’s computer operates it. Audi’s R-tronic, Alfa Romeo’s MTA and BMW’s now deceased SMG gearboxes are all examples robotised manual gearboxes.
You have the option of driving them in Automatic mode, whereby the car’s computer will decide when to changes gears, or in Manual mode, where it is up to the driver. But in reality trying to drive this gearbox in anything but Manual is truly terrible, because unless you momentarily come off the throttle while you change gear, the sudden disengage and reengagement of power causes the car to shudder quite violently.
The new kid on the block is the dual-clutch movement. In this stable we have BMW’s DCT, Porsche’s PDK, Audi’s S-tronic and Volkswagen’s DSG. In the simplest of explanations you can imagine two gearboxes, each with a different set of gears linked to them. The first has 1st, 3rd and 5th, while the second has 2nd, 4th, and 6th. Instead of changing from 2nd to 3rd via a cog change, the gearboxes actually switch over, meaning that the next gear is already pre-selected. This makes dual-clutch systems extremely quick and responsive to manual inputs, as long as the software attached to it is up to scratch.
And lastly, and the point of this story, is the Continuously Variable Transmission, or CVT gearbox. It doesn’t have mechanical cogs that need to be switched in and out to change gears. Instead the gearbox is able to seamlessly change the ratio in tiny increments, the same way an elastic band can be seen as a small cog when it is not stretched, or a large cog when it is stretched to its maximum elasticity, and everything in between. Toyota and Honda both rely heavily on CVT gearboxes, as does Audi through their Multitronic gearbox, and also Subaru.
But what makes Subaru different to the rest of the pack is that they believe that their CVT gearbox, the Lineartronic CVT as they call it, is the best choice when it comes to automatic gearboxes. So much so that they have stopped offering their cars with anything except for the CVT manual gearbox.
And after spending a day with a Lineartronic equipped Forester, I have to agree.
From the outside, Subaru’s Forester is strictly a SUV. It’s quite handsome and looks like it would be able to swallow up a lot of people and baggage, but behind the big steel doors it seems that there is more of an emphasis on the Utility aspect of SUV formula.
The cabin is comfortable, and on paper there is a lot of technology, especially in this the XS Premium spec, but there is also an enormous amount of scratchy plastic surfaces. It feels like the Forester’s interior starts it life in the most basic configuration and is improved by embedding technology. It’s all there but it just feels like an after thought.
But what it lacks in luxury it does make up for in utility. You get the sense that the designer had a distinct dislike for people who buy a big SUV and never take it out to the country, because the Forester is geared towards rewarding its driver for taking it off the easy tar and onto the rougher stuff.
Subaru is very proud of their Symmetrical All-wheel drive and from a company that has won it’s fair share of World Rally Championships we would agree that they have the skills to back up that pride. The Forester is also quite high off the ground, sporting a 220mm ground clearance, and the sills are lower meaning you won’t pick up half of the forest on your pant’s leg when you get out of the cabin.
Back to the Gearbox
So it’s made for going off road, and will probably not be your cup of tea if you just want something to sit up above traffic. But as I mentioned earlier, Subaru is also very proud of their Lineartronic gearbox, even though CVT’s are historically the worst gearboxes that you could end up with.
But I think Subaru has nailed it. There is no torque-vectoring lag when you pull off, and you never feel that you are unable to take a gap because the gearbox needs to first shake off the cobwebs. It also doesn’t hunt for more revs before settling into the lower rev range once you reach the biggest ratio. You can pull away easily and keep the engine at the 2000rpm mark and not be starved for power.
It also works really well with the 2,5-litre boxer engine that produces 126 kW. It’s not as quick as the range topping 177 kW 2,0-litre turbocharged 2.0TX, but with the Lineartronic sorting out the power delivery curve the engine feels more powerful than you would expect from a big automatic SUV.
So if you’re looking for something that is more utility than sport, then look no further than the Forester.